Experiential Learning: Another Meetings Must

Your attendees don’t just want to sit back and watch speakers present. They want to be part of the action and have an immersive experience. Making that happen will mean deeper engagement and more satisfied conference attendees.

A few nights ago I found myself with an empty DVR and nothing too appealing On Demand, so I was forced to watch TV with commercials (yikes!). After a few minutes of channel surfing, I got sucked into an episode of “Shark Tank” from October 2013. Not something I normally watch, but the product one of the pairs was pitching to the “sharks” was so ridiculous that I was hooked. Thankfully the panel of potential investors had the same feeling as me about the product—which will remain unnamed here.

The only way to get people to spend money and take time out of the office is to give them a life experience that they cannot get if they just choose to participate remotely.

But it was the next pitch that caught my attention and inspired this blog post. Entrepreneur Melissa Carbone stood in front of the panel of sharks, which included billionaire and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and fashion and branding expert Daymond John, with a cast of ghoulish characters beside her, asking for a $2 million investment in her entertainment company Ten Thirty One Productions. In exchange for the $2 million, Carbone said, the investor would get a 10 percent equity stake, meaning she valued her company at $20 million.

At first the sharks balked at the value, but as she talked more and presented numbers about the company’s most popular and lucrative attraction, the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, they became more impressed. Over 17 sold-out nights in October, Carbone says she brings in $1.8 million. Once you cut out production costs of $1.2 million, her company walks away with $600,000 after 17 days.

John immediately offered up the first offer: $2 million for a 40 percent stake. Carbone countered with $2 million for a 20 percent stake.  Before John could respond, Cuban said, “I’ll take that offer.” (Which I have since come to find out sealed the largest deal in “Shark Tank” history.)

Why did Cuban make the deal?

Because, he said, experiential entertainment is the next big thing.

In other words, guests no longer just want to watch the action from a hayride; they want to be part of it.

Another example of this type of experiential entertainment is the New York City-based production Sleep No More, which began in 2011. This interactive, immersive experience takes place in the fictional five-story McKittrick Hotel and tells the story of Macbeth. Audience members are given no programs, and there is no speaking from either audience or actors, but recorded music plays at all times.

The audience wears masks, while the actors perform in interpretive group settings, solitary scenes, and dance sequences. While audience members are instructed to remain silent and masked at all times, they may move freely at their own pace for up to three hours, choosing where to go and what to see, so that everyone’s journey is unique. They may also leave at any point. Audience members can follow any of the actors throughout the performance, or they can explore the many rooms of the building on their own.

While it’s unlikely an association will offer an immersive theater experience at a conference, the success of these two shows speaks to the fact that your meeting attendees don’t just want to sit in the audience and watch and listen to experts and presenters speak. They want to have a role and be immersed in it, both physically and emotionally.

Some association meetings have begun to experiment with experiential and experience-based learning. For example, last year I wrote an article for our print magazine about why the learning experience matters. The two associations highlighted—the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and the Society of Pharmaceutical and Biotech Trainers (SPBT)—created more interactive learning experiences on their tradeshow floors. For example, NASSP placed its Connected Learning Center in the middle of the exhibit hall. Included was a technology showcase that demonstrated new tools and offered smaller, interactive learning sessions.

SPBT, on the other hand, transformed its exhibit hall into a learning village. The reinvention comprised four things: a new show-floor layout, the addition of four learning stations, a vendor-attendee speed-networking session, and a team-building charity event.

“The only way to get people to spend money and take time out of the office is to give them a life experience that they cannot get if they just choose to participate remotely,” said Executive Director Kevin Kruse. “[W]hat we wanted to do in this learning village was not only drive more traffic to the show floor but also create a place where people could experientially learn and get that high-value experience they could take back home with them and implement immediately.”

How well did it work for Kruse and SPBT? Ninety-seven percent of attendees said they wanted the learning stations back at the next meeting.

How is your association experimenting with experiential learning and education at your conferences? Let me know in the comments.

The Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, a big "Shark Tank" winner, offers a key example of an immersive experience. (Handout photo)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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